Julie Wan is a writer of literary nonfiction, including memoir, essays, reportage, and hybrid forms such as prose poems and lyric essays. Her varied interests have led her to venture into writing about science, nature, culture, and the anthropology of food. But her favorite subject still tends to be illuminating the wonder in the everyday. Some of her work can be found at www.juliewan.com. More recently, she has been working on building community through Vita Poetica, an arts and faith collective connecting creative and contemplative people in the DC area and beyond.
Writing has always been my way of grappling with meaning. Taking a question, image, or event and spinning it to see what it might become, what it has to say. From childhood, I wrote letters, kept journals, and read extensively.
I also grew up in the church – my father was the pastor of a Chinese-Vietnamese congregation in Ho Chi Minh City, where I was born, and where we occupied the living quarters behind the church sanctuary. When I was three and a half, we immigrated to Canada, where many of my relatives had been taken in as refugees during the Vietnam War. Since then, geography and dislocation have featured prominently in my consciousness and thus, in my writing. I have lived in the frigid Saskatchewan plains, the sun-baked Sonoran desert of Tucson, and, perhaps the most surreal of all, in a diplomatic compound in Beijing, where I looked so out of place I had to show a passport to get into my own home.
My father was an artistic soul and a fantastic storyteller who infused my imagination with folktales, Bible stories, and family history, all of which received equal weight in his tellings. He approached everything he did as both craft and art, from cooking to ironing to preaching. He would extract from the task its innate beauty, philosophy, and essence of being. From him, I really came to see the wonder in all things, the very spark of God.
When I was 10, my father returned to seminary, and I inadvertently became his assistant in typing, editing, and sometimes translating his papers. Weaving between cultures and languages had always been a way of life for me, but now it was also my role. Translation became a theme in my life, an exploration of ways that we come to understanding, or don’t. And then there is the fate of the translator, who only ever conveys the words and meaning of someone else.
Perhaps it was my fate too that I’d go on to study linguistics (with a boost from Tolkien), English lit, and, only later, creative writing. To write anything at all, I feared, was to be original, to stand behind my own words. But, of course, that was what I needed to do. Writing remains for me a spiritual quest, a wrestling with meaning, a search for understanding. The root of the word essay comes from French for “to try.” I think of every piece I work on as an attempt, an act of hope, a trust that language will take me to somewhere worthwhile.
Other examples of Julie’s writing can be found at: